The state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption sting operation is set to be sentenced on June 1, but that could be extended since Matt O’Donnell has not yet testified against any of the three former elected officials charged in 2019.
O’Donnell pled guilty to using straw donors to obtain public contracts in 2021.
Former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, and former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish are scheduled to appear before a Superior Court judge on June 14 for a hearing.
Typically, the government holds off sentencing cooperating witnesses until after they completed their cooperation.
In a revised plea agreement signed in September 2021, O’Donnell admitted guilt to one count of second-degree conspiracy to commit misconduct by a corporate official and one count of third-degree conspiracy to commit tampering with public records and information. While the statutory maximum sentence is 15 years, the attorney general’s office has agreed to a deal that requires O’Donnell to serve two three-year prison sentences concurrently.
While O’Donnell had initially agreed to a seven-year state prison term, a revised plea agreement he signed on October 25, 2021, appears to have acknowledged more criminal acts beginning about five weeks after he signed his first plea — and eight months after he began cooperating with prosecutors.
Despite that, it appears prosecutors offered O’Donnell a better deal than the one he got three years ago: three years in prison instead of seven.
O’Donnell has agreed to be debarred and to a ten-year ban on any business relationship with the state. He’ll need to pay full restitution to victims and forfeit $600,000 that came from his use of straw donors and illegal cash contributions. O’Donnell has also agreed to pay a $250,000 public corruption profiteering penalty and a lifetime ban on public employment.
The New Jersey Globe first reported in December 2019 that an anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations that O’Donnell and Valandingham used straw donors to funnel money to local candidates he was pitching for tax appeal work.
The whistleblower told state and federal authorities that the two lawyers moved substantial amounts of money through relatives, employees, and friends who have made large campaign contributions.
O’Donnell began cooperating with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office in mid-2017.
Around that time, an anonymous whistleblower contacted deputy state attorney general Anthony Picione with information that O’Donnell was using straw donors to funnel money into political campaigns connected with his bid to represent government entities on tax appeal cases.
Nearly two years ago, Superior Court Judge Mitzi Galis-Menendez sealed a list of potential targets in a state corruption probe, including a list of individuals O’Donnell offered to contact and a list of people prosecutors asked him to connect with in his role as a cooperating witness for the state.
Windish was charged with bribery in 2019, after prosecutors alleged that he took an envelope with $7,000 in cash from O’Donnell. Prosecutors allege that Windish took the money in exchange for a commitment that he would vote to reappoint O’Donnell as the municipal attorney. In 2021, prosecutors offered Windish a plea agreement that includes five years in prison, but the former councilman did not accept the offer.
Thomas was charged with trading public contracts for campaign contributions. He is also facing embezzlement charges filed by the U.S. Attorney.
A former Freeholder and Parsippany councilman, Cesaro seeking an open freeholder seat at the time of his arrest for accepting a bribe from O’Donnell.
The New Jersey Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in a case involving another O’Donnell-related defendant, former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-Bayonne), today. Matt and Jason O’Donnell are not related.
Elizabeth Valandingham, O’Donnell’s former law partner, entered a guilty plea for her role in a straw donor scheme involving pay-to-play violations in 2021. She pled to charges of 3rd-degree tampering with public records.
Valandingham acknowledged, O’Donnell McCord, failed to file business entity discloses in Bloomfield and Mount Arlington to a deliberate attempt to hide political contributions made by the firm, its donors, and individuals who made contributions who then were reimbursed in cash.
Records show that O’Donnell told prosecutors that he felt obligated to give campaign contributions and cash in order to secure lucrative contracts representing local government entities as a tax appeal attorney.